Today is the 97th birthday of the triple-threat performer Cyd Charisse. Her before/after name change came about more organically than those of her peers, but is still one of the best. The world is a better place because she is in it and still feels the loss that she has left.
BEST KNOWN FOR: Vamp dancer in Singin’ in the Rain
Cyd Charisse was a terrific dancer whose career as a movie song-and-dance woman was cut short by bad luck. She was denied numerous leading roles opportunities because she worked for MGM while Ann Miller was the studio’s top starlet, and as Charisse finally achieved the stardom and recognition her dancing deserved, movie musicals faded from popularity, and she became just another Hollywood actress.
Born Tula Finklea, her younger brother was unable as a toddler to pronounce “sister,” and called her “Syd” instead. She liked to dance, and her father loved the ballet, so he enrolled her in dance lessons, and by the age of 14 she was dancing professionally. At 16 she came to Los Angeles, where she continued studying dance and fell in love with her instructor, Nico Charisse. They were married in Paris and danced professionally on stage as Nico & Charisse. The marriage did not last but her new last name did.
She made her film debut in 1943 in Something to Shout About with Don Ameche and Jack Oakie, and had featured roles in minor musicals including The Unfinished Dance with Margaret O’Brien,Till the Clouds Roll By with Robert Walker, and The Harvey Girls with Judy Garland. In Singin’ in the Rain it was Charisse who tempted Gene Kelly and the audience by wordlessly dancing the vamp in the “Broadway Melody Ballet” segment.
After ten years dancing on screen, Charisse was finally given a leading role in Vincente Minnelli‘sThe Band Wagon, now widely considered one of the best musicals ever made, dancing alongsideFred Astaire. She starred with Gene Kelly in Brigadoon and It’s Always Fair Weather, and re-teamed with Astaire for Silk Stockings. Charisse was finally a star, but as musicals faded she became more an actress than a dancer.
In her first non-musical role, she played the dull but faithful girl looking for Richard Basehart inTension in 1950, and she had her best dramatic role as the titular Party Girl in 1958, luring gang-connected lawyer Robert Taylor toward a noirishly doomed demise. She often worked on television and on stage through the 1990s, and she appeared in advertisements for Coppertone tanning lotion, General tires, Lustre-Creme shampoo, and Lux toilet soap. Her last film was a 1989 Italian drama,Visioni private (Private Screening).
In 1948, after a fling with playboy Howard Hughes, she married then-superstar singer Tony Martin, and in the 1960s and ’70s she and Martin had a popular nightclub act. They co-authored their joint autobiography, The Two of Us, in 1976, and co-starred in a schmaltzy TV movie, Sentimental Journey, in 1984. Charisse and Martin were married more than sixty years.
FILMOGRAPHY AS ACTOR
That’s Entertainment! III (16-Jun-1994) · Herself
Warlords of Atlantis (May-1978)
Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (26-May-1976)
Maroc 7 (22-Mar-1967)
The Silencers (18-Feb-1966) · Sarita
Two Weeks in Another Town (17-Aug-1962) · Carlotta
Something’s Got to Give (1962)
Five Golden Hours (Feb-1961)
Black Tights (1960)
Party Girl (28-Oct-1958) · Vicki Gaye
Twilight for the Gods (6-Aug-1958)
Silk Stockings (18-Jul-1957) · Ninotchka
Meet Me in Las Vegas (9-Mar-1956) · Maria Corvier
It’s Always Fair Weather (1-Sep-1955) · Jackie Leighton
Deep in My Heart (9-Dec-1954) · Dancer
Brigadoon (8-Sep-1954) · Fiona Campbell
The Band Wagon (7-Aug-1953) · Gabrielle Gerard
The Wild North (10-May-1952) · Indian Girl
Singin’ in the Rain (27-Mar-1952) · Dancer
Mark of the Renegade (2-Aug-1951)
Tension (11-Jan-1950) · Mary Chandler
East Side, West Side (22-Dec-1949) · Rosa Senta
Words and Music (9-Dec-1948) · Margo Grant
The Kissing Bandit (18-Nov-1948) · Dancer
On an Island with You (3-May-1948) · Yvonne Torro
The Unfinished Dance (19-Sep-1947) · Mlle. Ariane Bouchet
Fiesta (12-Jun-1947) · Conchita
Till the Clouds Roll By (5-Dec-1946) · Dancer
Three Wise Fools (26-Sep-1946)
Ziegfeld Follies (8-Apr-1946) · Ballet Dancer
The Harvey Girls (18-Jan-1946) · Deborah